Thought piece #3 – Antoinette Danebaï Lamana: „The Ink of the Scholars“ – „The Taming of Fate“: reflections on knowledge production in social sciences and parrhêsia

Thought piece #3 – Antoinette Danebaï Lamana: „The Ink of the Scholars“ – „The Taming of Fate“: reflections on knowledge production in social sciences and parrhêsia

Antoinette Danebaï Lamana
Antoinette Danebaï Lamana

June 2024

Michel Foucault, in The Hermeneutics of the Subject, refers to parrhêsia as a way of saying everything frankly, with openness of speech, openness of mind, openness of language, and exercising freedom of speech – this is both a technê, a technique, and an ethos, a way of being. This is an entry point to reflect on freedom in the knowledge production process based on primary data in social sciences. Can freedom of speech be complete or should it be considered as a romance in knowledge production? Regarding the field of research where primary data are gathered, what Frantz Fanon once said seems to raise some issues about the knowledge produced: “Make the masses understand that everything depends on them, that if we stagnate, it is their fault, and if we progress, they too are responsible, that there is no demiurge, no illustrious man who takes responsibility for everything, but that the demiurge is the people and the magic is in their hands and in their hands alone” (Fanon, 2004: 139; cited in Diagne, 2016: 61).

Two books seem to raise questions that may illustrate the problem I am grappling with here: how do we frankly get from oral to written knowledge and from primary data to scientific arguments in the scholar/research/academic trajectory? The first book is by Souleymane Bachir Diagne, The Ink of the Scholars (2016), which addresses four major issues: (i) philosophy and aesthetic discourse, (ii) time and foresight with African languages, (iii) orality and writing concerning philosophical thought as well as (iv) political thought, especially how African socialisms are presented as doctrines both anchored in a certain African philosophy of community and carrying modernity in which the continent should find the paths to its development.

„The Ink of the Scholars“

I focus on the theme of “speech and ink” as developed by S.B. Diagne. I draw from the idea that orality, “speech” as a primary data “urgently” needs to be translated into “script”, where “ink” represents the sense of urgency and the transition to writing. Diagne considers orality as a fundamental characteristic of African cultures with the idea that orality is always thought of with the question of transmission saying: “Orality is fragile like the memory of the ancients and that its transmission is threatened” (Diagne, 2016: 50).

The author of The Ink of the Scholars also reminds us that translation is a betrayal but “certainly, […] this betrayal is the only true loyalty” (Diagne, 2016: 51). This reflection sets the methodological milestones for the production of knowledge, particularly the transition from orature to writing, taking into account the context, and the history of the “scientist” or the “scholar” who takes up his/her pen. This makes us think of the academic who engages in the research process in social sciences. How far the transcription can be influenced or not by parrhêsia?

„The Taming of Fate“

The second book, The Taming of Fate, by Elísio Macamo (2017), uses a theoretical overview through the stories of individuals and communities to reconstruct their perception of their situations against all odds. He presents his study from the method of primary data collection to the results as knowledge production in four parts: the first part is an introduction to the context of the research, the conceptualisation of disasters, crises, and local agency, the second part is a theoretical and methodological exploration of the study of “Africa”, the contingency and meaning of social action, risks, and social reality, as well as fragility, interaction and methodological questions ranging from theoretical to empirical foundation. The third part deals with studies on disaster management, the analysis of the process of social construction of disaster, contradictory interpretations of reality, and predictability. In the conclusion, i.e. fourth part, he presents the struggles for meaning, the challenge of intelligibility and the taming of fate: relevance, knowledge, and certainty.

In this rich work, my morceau choisit is the author’s focus on the context of action by addressing the reflection: how to transcribe what people think of themselves? “We face a methodological challenge that presents itself in the age-old form of the difficult relationship between concept and reality, but also in the way in which analytical operations help us structure how we make sense of reality. […] Our stories of reality are based on what the data tells us about reality” (Macamo, 2017: 81). This issue sheds light on the conflicting interpretations of reality. He argues that a single reality can be accessed in several different ways: “Most often, these different ways are reduced to two major perspectives, namely a scientific-rational way and a magical-transcendental way” (Macamo, 2017: 138). This is why he goes on to explain that research in Africa is not only about describing the world and understanding social action but also analyzing the role that approaches to reality play in the structuring of social action and the nature of reality.

The author explains that one of these approaches is “interpretive hegemony” and the other the “descriptive itinerary”. The first is based on the hypothesis that the structure of social action is informed by the decisions individuals make to perceive reality in a given way and that these decisions are made in the context of a tension between interpretive frameworks competing for dominance in the apprehension of reality. The “descriptive itinerary”, the second approach, is useful as a central notion for attempting a descriptive reconstruction of empirical material to provide a basis for individuals to make their daily lives more predictable.

Elísio Macamo draws his conclusions on The Taming of the Fate from the struggle for meaning that goes beyond description and analysis to produce knowledge about local perceptions of crises and disasters, as well as their prevention mechanisms and adaptation strategies. This leads him to take up the challenge of intelligibility for the social science researcher by trying to make sense of the villagers’ lifeworld, by seeking to describe the possibility of human behaviour based on the villagers’ stories, not to improve their living conditions, but to develop a genuine interest in human behaviour in general. The process from data to knowledge seems to be oriented in such a way that questions parrhêsia when he says: “In a nutshell, the search for local perceptions of crises and disasters has turned into a search for how human’s tame fate” (Macamo, 2017: 221).


From these two rich books, several questions arise about parrhêsia in the process of knowledge production, especially from oral sources as primary data, regarding the researcher’s freedom, history, methodology, and the data themselves. How do we think and how do we transcribe our way of thinking? What is the method used for reflection and how can we apply it to move from oral to written data and facts to the production of knowledge to make them reliable? Faced with the tension that runs through the process of scientific production, some questions that come up are: how is knowledge production influenced by our history, and our journey, to recount the challenges we have gone through, to express ourselves in academia? How do we think critically about the refusal to learn or communicate from others for example? Could we perceive “crisis” as a form of agency for researchers? In response to defending identity as an endogenous process of knowledge production, how can we move from an epistemological positioning to empirical experience? Does culture change in the face of a crisis in a process of meaning construction? What about disruption of identity and new logic, ambiguity, resistance and cohesion, expression of fears, and threat to the identity of the researcher?


Diagne Souleymane Bachir, 2016: The Ink of the Scholars. Reflections on Philosophy in Africa. Dakar, Codesria.
Fanon Frantz, 2004: The Wretched of the Earth. translated by Richard Philcox. New York, Grove Books.
Foucault Michel, 2001: L’herméneutique du sujet. Paris, Gallimard/Le Seuil.
Macamo Elisio S., 2017: The Taming of the Fate: Approaching Risk from a Social Action Perspective: Case Studies from Southern Mozambique. Dakar, Codesria.